What "Irreligion" brings to the table is brevity. Sometimes I wished for a little more exposition, but ultimately I think Paulos's tactic was right on. There's little in "Irreligion" that hasn't been covered (and more comprehensively) by Stenger, Dawkins, Edis, and other science-based New Atheists, but only a convinced atheist is likely to read tomes such as those fine thinkers have produced. A religious skeptic or nominal believer, on the other hand, is not terribly likely to plow through so much material (and in some cases, insulting and excessive snark) as is present in works such as "The God Delusion." But she might find a fast-paced, easily digested little book like this one just the thing to stimulate thought and promote a more rational outlook. Atheists, like theologians, can tend to go on and on, self-importantly. The rare book like "Irreligion" that gets in, makes its provocative points, then gets out is a very welcome addition to neo-atheism literature, not least because of the vivid wit Paulos brings to the subject. I loved his analogy of something to a scholar who had proved that Homer had not written "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," but they were "written by another blind poet of the same name." That's the sort of lowkey humor that makes the subject matter feel brisk and breezy rather than onerous, ponderous, and stale.
For centuries, people who believe in the different gods that people have adopted have insisted that there are good logical reasons to believe in their particular gods. Logic and science can do nothing to disconfirm the existence of these gods, but at the same time, if an attempt at a logical proof of a god's existence is presented, then the proof can be logically examined to see if it holds water. John Allen Paulos has looked at the proofs and finds them leaky. Paulos is a mathematician who has previously told us how a mathematician plays the stock market or how a mathematician reads the newspaper. Now, in _Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up_, he goes for the big game. His book shows the results of his examination of the question that is the first sentence in his book: "Are there any logical reasons to believe in God?" His book is a review of the ways that religious people have demonstrated to their own satisfaction (but not to his) that the existence of God can be logically derived. He has written before on this sort of theme, but his book is an attempt to deal directly with the "inherent illogic to all of the arguments." Jonathan Swift said, "It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into", and Paulos acknowledges this: "I have little problem with those who acknowledge the absence of good arguments for God, but simply maintain a nebulous but steadfast belief in `something more'".
Plenty of the arguments for God's existence here are well known; in fact, they are classics, and have been the subject of discussion and refutation for centuries. They may fortify the faith of those who already believe (although Paulos shows that they are untrustworthy fortifications), but again, already believing is the key. Right off the bat is the First Cause argument, presented in Paulos's summary:
1. Everything has a cause, or perhaps many causes.
2. Nothing is its own cause.
3. Causal chains can't go on forever.
4. So there has to be a first cause.
5. That first cause is God, who therefore exists.
It all seems convincing at first sight, and believers who wish to use this sort of thinking as evidence for their beliefs would be wise not to give it a second look. Paulos explains that a big problem is #1 above, which assumes too much. An alternative #1 is, "Either everything has a cause, or there's something that doesn't," and there isn't any way of getting around the truth of that. If everything has a cause, then God does, too, as does his cause and so on forever; and if there is something that doesn't have a cause, there is no reason that this something has to be elevated into the supernatural, for the physical world itself might be the thing that does not have a cause, and that's an end of the chain.
And so Paulos goes on, through this brisk little book which takes on one supposed proof after another: the Argument from Design, the Anthropic Principle, the Ontological Argument, Pascal's Wager, and more. Each of the chapters, most less then ten pages long, dispatches each would-be proof. Paulos has used more logic and less mathematics here; there are no equations in the book, for instance, although there are dips into pure mathematics when discussing such things as probabilities for Pascal's Wager. There is a good deal of humor and wonderfully clear writing. Nonbelievers are probably already familiar with the arguments for and against God's existence, but some of Paulos's counterarguments are novel and all are expressed in a pithy and easily memorable form. Believers ought to enjoy puzzling out the challenges here, and should have a renewed appreciation for the importance of faith, however lacking logical confirmation, as the foundation of their beliefs.
on February 17, 2008
To appreciate this book, one must understand what readership it is aimed at. This appears to be the people on both sides of the divide between religious and nonreligious who are neither utterly convinced atheists (although those might enjoy the book as well), nor unquestioning believers. It is for readers who are intelligent and interested in the subject of God's existence or nonexistence, but do not have the time or inclination to immerse themselves in 536pp philosophical books. These people would be most interested in the thoughts of another intelligent person, a person who has spent some time exploring the major arguments, and is capable of presenting them and his conclusions in a clear and concise manner. It is then up to the reader to agree or disagree with the reasoning.
The book would not convince religious people whose minds are closed, even if they read it. It will not convince people who deny the role of reason in the question of God's existence. And it is not a polemic with ivory tower theologians.
This is a gentle book. Paulos does not bring up the horrific facts of the criminal history of religion that Dawkins, Hitchens and others have explored in recent books. He concentrates on a few common arguments for God's existence, and shows how an intelligent person would find them wanting.
on January 29, 2008
Do monsters lurk under the bed?
Paulos is not one to convince a worried six-year-old that no Monsters lurk under the bed. Sure, he could logically and incisively prove Under-the-Bed-Monsters do not exist, as he exquisitely disproves a dozen different beliefs older people use to explain God. His logic, reasoning and explanations are impeccable - - but hollow. When anyone deals with Monsters, Ghosts, Angels or God, they are dealing with emotion rather than logic.
This is a delightful book for those who already know God is false. But it doesn't address the central issue: Why are so many Americans, and especially engineers and technology workers, so committed to God-cults? Why are so many Americans "crusaders" for God, just as so many Moslems are "jihadists" for Allah? In Iran today, there is a separation of mosque and state with each having separate leaders. In America today, a prime requirement to be president is an absolute faith in a close personal relationship with God.
Richard Hofstadter said Puritan resistance to old religious and civil hierarchies in England launched a fervent opposition to all book learning in America. This founding principle of the United States led to the War of Independence, but it has also produced a trend to self-chosen religion instead of what the state imposes. Today's mega-churches, extreme fundamentalism and televangelists are part of a rich American heritage; a direct product of Salem witch hunts, frenzied tent revivals, the fanaticism of radio evangelism and unrestrained freedom itself.
Disproving God is similar to disproving Monsters. If the emotional origins are understood, a parent can comfort such fears. It is the emotional approach to religion which explains why Americans, after rejecting the dictates of an Established Church, are so suscepticle to the dictates of any church - - the more independent in its belief the better - - provided it is of their own rebellious choosing. Paulos attempts to use logic to explain such emotion; religion uses emotion to create its own logic.
Although this is a wonderfully logical rebuttal of current fads about God and fully deserving of its many five-star rankings, a skeptical reader is left with a suspicion that Paulos couldn't calm the fears of a six-year-old who believes monsters do lurk under the bed.
The logic of Paulos is impeccable; BUT, Under-the-Bed-Monsters don't listen to logic. Nor do Crusaders, Jihadists, or many Americans.
on March 2, 2008
Irreligion is that rare book bringing to the forefront traditional explanations and arguments in favour of a superior being and exploring their extreme improbability. Some authors have approached the subject with the equivalent of "shock and awe" to eliminate the explanations and arguments advanced to support a God-based belief system. John Paulos is more the highly trained special forces sniper who patiently draws out his target before squeezing the trigger. It doesn't matter where the old argument may be hiding - in mystic explanations, holy books, miracles, or subjective claims for a personal God. Professor Paulos picks them off with a single round that includes wit, logic, and scientific method. The results are as shattering as any .50Cal round. He brings in reinforcements including David Hume, Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, and H.L. Mencken to further demolish divine explanations.
While Professor Paulos is a mathematics professor, no reader need fear that the math in Irreligion will be difficult. There is indeed very little formal math in the book. Part of the compelling appeal of this book comes from the examples that math and a razor sharp wit, when combined, provide devastating and lasting impact on the subject of religion. Professor Paulos asks what a miracle means, and answers the question in this fashion: "If a miracle is simply a very unlikely event, then miracles occur every day. Just ask any lottery winner or bridge player. Any particular bridge hand of thirteen cards dealt to you and proclaim them to be a miracle, or, worse, say that the hand's very improbability was evidence that you were not really dealt it."
The speculative physics that underscore religion are exposed for their transparent absurdity. Irreligion draws the distinction between science, which lives and dies by the sword edge of the falsifiable, and religion, which is based on tautology, a circular argument that never dies so long as the head of faith never catches the tail of belief. These are two very different mindsets, approaches, and explanations. There is no middle ground to reconcile the two ways of asking questions about life, death and the universe. In this remarkable book, John Paulos had drawn a line in the sand between outlandish religious positions that defy the laws of physics, reason and probability, and the scientific community, which recoils from "theological sleight of hand, a pulling of God out of a top hat."
on January 21, 2008
To like this book you must approach it as you might approach a blog you enjoy: Pharyngula, for example, or Bad Astronomy, or The Atheist Ethicist (and if you are considering this book at all, you would enjoy any of those). In other words, you find here some short, discursive, disconnected essays, often shallow, but also often amusing or thought-provoking. If the chapters of this book were postings in a blog and you read them online, one or two a week, you'd be amused and impressed.
As a book, and especially as a book with the ponderous subtitle "A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up," the contents are a disappointment, and I'm sorry I spent the cash for it. Paulos is not a philosopher, and seems to have only as much grasp of the body and methods of philosophy as any other smart, well-educated person might. Which means, any real philosopher could make toast of him. I don't think there's a god either, but I have enough respect for the brains of many generations of theologians to know that their arguments cannot be blown off in a page or two, nor should they be.
I have in my collection Michael Martin's Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (look it up here in Amazon), 536pp of careful, scrupulous, deeply-researched refutations of the arguments that Paulos throws darts at. Or, if you prefer less-weighty books, see Philosophers Without Gods edited by Louise M. Antony. Here you find shorter essays but each tackles a small, well-defined topic and deals with in tones of humanity, generosity and humility that are quite absent from Paulos's writing. He's a very bright guy with some good insights, but at least in this book, has done his purported subject much less than full justice.
on March 7, 2008
It has been said that "you can't use logic to argue someone out of a position that they didn't use logic to get into," which explains why this slender book is probably fated to remain "de-preaching to the de-converted." Paulos's expositions on the illogic of faith, like his earlier book on math illiteracy, will ring clear to those predisposed to his arguments and fall on deaf ears elsewhere. If your mind doesn't grasp the crystal clear logic of these arguments from the outset, they undoubtedly won't convince you of anything because your mind is not logically organized and you may already believe in all sorts of unsupported propositions. After all, those who have faith in superstitions are open to believing anything.
God will exist as long as humans in their present form exist. God lives within the hearts and minds of humans. Whether God exists outside of our hearts and minds is what is at issue, and once again when the arguments are examined in some objective depth it becomes clear that, as Paulos puts it, they "just don't add up."
He formally presents a dozen arguments and finds them all wanting. He begins with the "first cause" argument, namely that everything must have a cause and that God is the first cause. This argument was refuted many centuries ago, mainly because it begs the question of what caused God? The obvious answer, God is the uncaused cause, or God caused himself, or God always existed, doesn't help since we could simply say the universe is uncaused, or that it always existed and leave a superfluous God out.
The second "classical" argument for the existence of God is the argument from design. This is the one creationists employ in their attempt to get around biological evolution. The world is too complex to have come about through the work of natural forces and/or it shows unmistakable signs of being designed. Therefore there has to be a designer and that designer is God. The problem with this argument is that what we think of as being "too complex" is more a statement about our lack of imagination than it is about anything else. The tendency for matter to self-organize along with the interplay of replication, mutation, and natural selection is more powerful in its ability to bring about complexity than our poor minds can imagine. Furthermore, the universe and its systems are not "designed." They evolve. The idea of a designer is an anthropomorphic notion alien to the way the universe works.
The third argument, which Paulos calls the argument from the anthropic principle, is basically a version of the argument from design. Here it is argued that the universe is just so perfectly fine-tuned for humans (or life) that it couldn't have come about by chance. Consequently there must be a fine-tuner and naturally that fine-tuner is God.
The fourth argument, the argument from being or ontology contends that God is the greatest and most perfect of all beings, and that one of the attributes of perfection is existence. Therefore God exists. I might say that an attribute of perfection is non-existence. Therefore God does not exist. The ontological argument is really a play on words and proves nothing. Or one could say, as Paulos reminds us, that the most perfect island (or most perfect anything) must exist since a necessary characteristic of perfection is existence.
Most of the other arguments are even less compelling than these hoary old deceivers. Take what Paulos calls the argument from coincidence:
"1. All these remarkable events happening at the same time can't be an accident.
2. There must be some reason for their coincidence.
3. That reason is God.
4. Therefore God exists."
Note that "1." is an unwarranted assumption, as is "2." "3." is an assertion which assumes that which is to be demonstrated. Paulos allows that this howler "is seldom made explicitly, but a number of common inane statements do more than hint at it." (p. 52)
What most of these arguments have in common is human incredulity. That is, what exists or has happened is just too, too much for us to accept without calling on some supernatural explanation, and that explanation is God. Therefore God exists as the explanation for everything we can't understand, which is an "argument" for God that Paulos doesn't consider specifically. It could even be said that as long as we are confronted with things we don't understand or events that are beyond our comprehension--that is, forever--God will necessarily exist as an explanation for these things and events. Therefore, you can't kill God. God is part of human nature. It could also be said that if God didn't exist, we'd have to invent Him. And it could be added that we did.
All in all this is a very readable introduction to a very slippery subject. Paulos is an engaging writer who knows how to entertain the reader. However, I was not quite so entertained here as I was with his A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market (2003) which I highly recommend. Probably I have been too much with the subject of arguments for and against God for too many years. For those of you interested in a more nuanced and deeper look at this subject you might want to read The Impossibility of God (2003) edited by Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier. Therein you will find that SOME Gods (that is, definitions of God) really are impossible in the same sense that there can't be an irresistible force and an immovable object, or a God that can do impossible things like squaring the circle.
Bottom line on all such philosophic adventures as far as I am concerned is this: you can't prove or disapprove supernatural things. Regardless, unlike Paulos, I am a deist, but as I like to say, the God I believe in is nothing like the usual ideas of God. In fact I guess I could say I believe in a God that represents what is beyond human understanding. Therefore I believe in a God about which nothing can be said.
on February 5, 2008
I am relatively new to reading books on this topic. Paulos presents the reader with all(?) of the major critiques against religious belief. However, two or three times he lost me in his logic (especially the true and false statements section) and another couple of times I felt that he was contradicting himself (or so it appeared to me). I also wish he would have left out his attempts at being humorous, not because I don't like to laugh, just the opposite, but I feel it actually gets in the way of his presentation. But that's just me. On the positive side, he makes some very good points in favor of not believing in religion, several of which mirrored my own thoughts prior to reading the book. I recommend the book if you are new the topic and wish to read up on the major arguments against religion.
on March 1, 2008
"Irreligion" by John Allen Paulos nicely complements such books as "The End Of Faith" by Sam Harris, "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins, and "god is not Great" by Christopher Hitchens.
Unlike most of his predecessors' books, Paulos's addition is of a more analytical style, in which he systematically refutes a dozen arguments for the existence of God. But the analysis is frequently interspersed with personal anecdotes, reflections, and jokes. The book has a mathematical flavor, not surprisingly, since Paulos is a mathematician. Fortunately, for many readers, he manages to introduce math concepts without the need to use complex formulas.
While it is unlikely that the next president will take his or her oath of office with one hand on a stack of books authored by the likes of Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens and Paulos, all of these works are great additions to my library.